Ethical Animal Encounters


I am the type of person that goes “OOOOHHHH ELK” while driving through Colorado’s Mountains. I squee at ‘airy Coos in Scotland and I have paid to do Goat Yoga. I adore animals, and I adore seeing animals in different parts of the country and world.

My conundrum is how can one enjoy animals and love being around them when there is a chance of them being treated unethically or downright cruelly?

I’m an animal rights supporter, at least to a point. I’ve been a pescatarian or vegetarian for going on 15 years due to my qualms with industrial farming, and health reasons. I have adopted both my cats from a local rescue. I try to reduce my plastic consumption, I recycle, I buy fish that comes from certified “ocean friendly”.

You get my point, I try to live consciously and make positive decisions on how I spend my money. Yet, when it comes to travel, things get a little murky on decisions and who to turn to.

While many companies have stopped offering a tourist attractions because of animal welfare concerns (such as Tripadvisor and Viator), there are just as many independent companies still offering experience. Even while Viator has stopped sharing elephant rides, they still have dolphin and whale experiences and shows dotting the globe. This is even with documentaries that shined light on the horrors of such attractions, such as the Cove and Blackfish.

While companies are changing to meet new consumer demands, there is still a huge grey area between “okay” and “not”. No doubt, the rising popularity of platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snap Chat and Facebook mean that people are seeking out experiences to share online and increase their popularity. Then there are instances where tourism boards still condone activities, even though other parts of the world have criticized the practice.

This is perhaps most profound in Thailand and other parts of Southern Asia, where animal encounters are big money. Thailand adores its elephant population, and elephants have been a huge part of Thai culture, and now tourism, for centuries. However, while much of the western world has discredited elephant rides and performances, Thailand’s tourism still has booms in elephant rides throughout the country. While many websites tout “ethical” practices, many argue that there is no way to “ethically” train an elephant due to the practices of breaking them.

While there is evidence of more humane training and care for elephants, the reality is there is no true way to know what you are signing up for when you want to ride or even visit an elephant. The tough question is: is there any other way to see elephant in an ethical way? Since many elephants in “retirement” were once abused, there is reason to visit and support them in their golden years. Yet, ultimately, does this continue to perpetuate itself and who gets to call the rating on ethical or not? Even some “no riding” camps have been known to change faces in the afternoon for a new tour group, depending on the location. Then there are allegations of beating, drugging, and removal of infants from mothers.

On top of all these damning evidence, there is still a desire to see and interact with these animals. So what is one to do?